Institutional Racism

What is Institutional Racism?

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We have all heard the term, but what exactly is it? It is a specific form of racism defined as the norms, policies and practices that are structured into political, societal and economic institutions that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity, and equality to identifiable groups based upon race or ethnicity.

This means that racism is not only perpetrated by individuals but also by institutions such as education, health care, etc. During these uncertain times of racial injustice and social unrest, we felt it was important to address the issue of institutional racism as it relates to public education.

Educators are often the first to notice when children are treated unfairly. When groups of students are harmed because they are denied rights, opportunity or equity based on race or ethnicity and the patterns of discrimination are caused by the structural design of the systems, it is called institutional racism.

Signs of institutional racism might not be obvious at first glance. Here are some examples of institutional racism we have heard from some teachers.

  • Labeling schools as “failure factories”. The grading system itself degrades and denigrates communities and students.
  • Unfair disciplinary actions. More severe punishments are given to students of color.
  • Cutting enrichment programs. If students have low test scores, schools must meet additional requirements for how they use instructional time, cutting access to recess, fine arts instruction, and enrichment programs. This deprives the students who most need a rich curriculum, of opportunities to grow their love of learning.
  • Sliding segregation. Schools seem to be more segregated now than they were 15 years ago when the school reform movement began.

As parents, teachers and a society we need to be aware of institutional racism, how to spot the signs, and prevent the oppression.

Why is this important?

Institutional racism is deeply ingrained in our school system due to the flaws in our education system that don’t bridge the gaps in access and opportunity, they expand them.

This is especially clear when it comes to our state’s school grades system, as low school grades are closely correlated to communities of high minority and high poverty. We see the same patterns in student graduation, suspension, and expulsion rates as well as college admissions rates. One school reform policy termed “zero tolerance” has resulted in cases of students being expelled for bringing butter knives to school and kindergarten students arrested at school for what used to be treated as minor classroom disruptions.

Instead of fair access to high quality education for all students – which is part of our state constitution – our state’s funding priorities have promoted unequal access to “choice” programs through taxpayer funded vouchers luring parents away from established schools with the promise of new programs. The students whose parents may not be able to provide transportation or other resources are left in schools where poverty becomes more concentrated and such schools are provided fewer resources. Since student test scores are closely correlated with parental income, this system punishes schools that serve less advantaged communities.

A student’s zip code should not predict their success in school and in life. If we do not address this in our own schools and communities nothing will change. Our students deserve better, and we must lead the change.

  1. As advocates for public education, we believe that ALL students, no matter what they look like, what their background is or where they live, deserve a quality public education.
  2. Florida’s educational system is being damaged by policies that divert public funds to for-profit and religious schools at the expense of our public schools.
  3. The state’s system for assessing and addressing differences in student performance increases the inequities of Florida’s accountability system.
  4. We cannot begin to close the opportunity gap until we address our personal biases and the biases that are built into our educational system.

Read more about the initiatives being taken at the national level on this issue, and how you can join the fight to stop cheating our children. Institutional racism hurts every child…in every school…every day.


  1. NEA Ed Justice: What Connects Us
  2. NEA Resolution
  3. AFT Resolution
  4. Confronting Racial Injustice in Schools
  5. EduColor Resources
  6. Disrupting Implicit Bias

More Resources